Almost 40 years after John McKee left Vietnam, he decided to get on a motorcycle out in California, and go for a ride.
That ride changed his life.
And a fascinating thing happened as he rumbled his way east, coasting across the United States with hundreds of other riders, through deserts and over plains and winding between hills: He saw more of the same happening all around him, and by now, he’s seen all of it a dozen times over.
“It does bring healing,” said McKee, now of Odessa, speaking firsthand and sitting with his riding gear loosened, and his gloves off, during a stop on his 13th such cross-country ride.
“It really does,” he said, between stolen glances at his wife, ‘Mojo.’
John and Diann McKee rolled through Odessa the week before Memorial Day alongside more than 400 other riders, as part of the 30th annual Run for the Wall event, which sends motorcyclists across the country in 10 days, from California to Washington, D.C., toward the capital’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
On the third day of this year’s ride, on May 18, after a day spent barreling between scorching asphalt and the sweltering sun in New Mexico, John detailed what it was like, as a Vietnam veteran, to find something he could be part of like Run for the Wall, and to find brethren of a common bond in an organization founded by fellow veterans — and to find much, much more.
John and Diann met on his first cross-country ride with the group in 2006. They talked more during the ride in 2007. By 2008, they were married, and he moved from Pennsylvania to be with her in Odessa.
Diann is a native Odessan who graduated from Permian, and who got involved with Run for the Wall in 2003. Where everyone has their ‘road name,’ hers is ‘Mojo.’
Now, through their connections along with those of other area participants, Odessa has become a pivotal part of the event each year, serving as a tentpole among the 10 stops along the ride’s Southern route.
The event has grown to include 1,600 registered riders this year, spread across three routes that all start in Ontario, Calif. and push through different states before funneling together again in Washington, D.C. in time for Memorial Day.
Veterans, like John, and supporters, like Diann, participate in the endurance ride every year, to raise awareness to the call for the accounting of prisoners of war and those missing in action, and to honor those killed in action — and, for some, to be back part of something more.
“It’s a healing journey for a lot of these Vietnam vets, and now even the Iraqi and Afghanistan vets as well,” Diann said, speaking across from John under the roof of Crossroads Church on that first Friday of this year’s ride. With an escort from Odessa Police Department, the riders had just pulled in to the church to eat dinner and end their day’s ride that started in Las Cruces, N.M. that morning, before revving up and heading east the next morning.
“As they come across the country and see the support from the grassroots of America, it helps them release all those demons and just helps them heal, and they in turn want to come back the next year, and year, and year, to help other veterans.”
John said he was struggling with common issues from PTSD in the early 2000’s, when he learned about Run for the Wall through a documentary about the ride. “I said, ‘Why don’t I try that out?’
“I went in 2006, and man, it just changed my life,” he said. “It really did.
“It changed my life, and I saw similar people’s lives change around me, and that’s when I committed, ‘I’m going to do this again,’ and just kept doing it and doing it and doing it.”
More than a decade later, John can claim to be living proof of what the ride can do — and what the support along the way, from cities like Odessa, can mean.
“I thought patriotism was dead in the country, really. Because all you see on the news is the east coast and west coast, and you know how they are,” he said. He described a stop on his first ride with the organization, where, in a small town in New Mexico, a group of junior high students sang the national anthem for the riders, and he “about lost it,” just seeing some of that ‘grassroots’ support between the coasts.
“That was very rewarding.
“And it was also very rewarding to get back with people who had walked the same ground that I did — the mud, the blood and all that stuff. To have somebody say, ‘When you’re feeling down, I understand what you’re going through’ — Because you don’t think anyone does. You think you’re the only one who has these thoughts and feelings.”